A sad day for education

What problem is Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson trying to solve with his report from the Task Force for Teacher Excellence?

By Stephen Murgatroyd

Special to the Advocate

What problem is Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson trying to solve with his report from the Task Force for Teacher Excellence?

The task force — which did not involve the profession or the professional body established in law to be responsible for the profession — reported this week at a showcase event stage managed by the minister, who also spent the weekend briefing the media (but not the profession). The suggestion that this task force is “arms-length” from government is about as serious as the suggestion that Mayor Rob Ford is an arms-length from a few drinks or crack cocaine.

There are around 35,000 teachers in Alberta and the province is amongst the highest performing education systems in the world. Recently, our minister was celebrating teacher excellence. So what is the problem?

The fiction is that, with 35,000 teachers, we must have some “dud” teachers — yet no teacher has been dismissed for poor performance in the last decade. Therefore, we must have a problem and education in Alberta could be improved if we changed how we assess and reward teachers. Johnson, a Xerox salesman, has been floating this type of thinking for years.

The problem, this mystical thinking goes, is that those who supervise teachers — principals — are members of the same organization as the teachers themselves. Worse, once certified, teachers do not have to be recertified and are not paid by merit but by length of service. Therefore, if you are following this line of thought, teachers should be evaluated frequently (every three to five years) by principals and, to do this, principals should not be part of the same professional body as teachers.

What is more, merit should be recognized by merit pay. These two things will improve education in Alberta — already among one of the best systems in the world. Since the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) will likely oppose these changes, the thinking goes, we will need to change the ATA.

These major changes to the profession require considerable thought, so 30 days should do for feedback.

Where to start?

First, who gave this minister a mandate to so misunderstand what teachers do and how they do it that he feels able to undertake this work without truly engaging the profession in this conversation?

Imagine a task force on medical competence and effectiveness in which doctors were not engaged or a task force on policing efficiency and effectiveness in which active officers were not engaged? Difficult to imagine isn’t it? Yet that happened in this case.

Second, what is the evidential base on which these recommendations are being made? Where is the evidence of the need for this enhanced bureaucracy — which is where this will lead — so as to deal with a problem we don’t really have?

Principals currently do supervise and assess, teachers are highly engaged in professional development and the system performance is strong. The ATA doesn’t have to deal with performance issues — they are dealt with locally.

Third, what evidence was reviewed about the impact of merit pay on professional workers? There are no compelling examples of merit pay for teachers having an impact on pupil performance. Worse, there is evidence that such schemes generally distort the work of teachers and distract school systems from their work.

Fourth, what is the government of Alberta doing alienating in the most deliberate way one of the largest professional bodies in the province? Is it systematically trying to lose the next election and make it impossible for the major changes in education which (current) Premier Dave Hancock championed as minister of Education and on which all involved in the system were aligned to take place?

Johnson has, during his tenure, ensured that this critical work is now on life support. The government was given opportunities to meet with the ATA and side-step these issues, but didn’t respond.

Finally, the major curriculum changes now underway are most unlikely to receive the support of teachers if teachers are in such fundamental opposition to the work of the minister. This is unfortunate.

There is a great deal of support for change and for the direction of these changes, though there are also concerns at the speed at which these changes could occur.

The minister is not the ministry and a genuine and honest attempt is being made to ensure that Alberta’s emerging curriculum meets the need of the Alberta the world needs to see. It would be unfortunate for this important work to be impossible to progress, but this is now likely to be the case.

It is a sad day for innovative spirits, committed teachers and professionals in Alberta. A smart premier would act to stop the nonsense.

Stephen Murgatroyd is a consultant in innovative business and education practices with a PHd in psychology. This column was supplied by Troy Media (www.troymedia.com).

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